Mapping lynx habitat near Copper Mountain
Summit Daily News
Copper Mountain, Colorado
SUMMIT COUNTY, Colorado ” Striding up along the creek near Vail Pass on her snowshoes, U.S. Forest Service biologist Liz Roberts explains her efforts to study lynx habitat in the forests west of Copper Mountain.
“They have a large home range and there are no boundaries. They don’t stop at public or private land,” she says of the elusive cats, listed federally as a threatened species since 2000.
At one level, lynx conservation and recovery is a political issue, pitting conservation stakeholders against development interests. But for Roberts, it’s pure science. She wants to know where the cats roam during the night, where they hide and which patches of forest hold plentiful snowshoe hares, the most important food source for lynx.
Today, her work is focused on Vail Pass, but together with a team of research technicians, Roberts plans to do the same kind of mapping across much of the White River National Forest.
It’s more than a theoretical question. During the past 10 years, the Colorado Division of Wildlife transplanted more than 200 lynx from Canada and Alaska to the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado. Those cats have wandered far and wide, often passing through Summit County.
But even the scientists who study lynx rarely see one. That’s one reason Roberts has set up a network of motion-activated cameras. Today, she’s going to check on one of them, attached to a tree about 18 inches off the ground, pointing at another tree with a piece of carpet attached that has been smeared with an attractant ” a kind of catnip intended to lure lynx into range of the lens. Already this winter, one lynx tripped the shutter while sniffing the lure.
Pushing aside some spruce boughs, Roberts says this thick stand of firs is ideal for the cats.
Habitat connectivity needs to have the canopy above it,” she says, explaining how the cats prefer forest with plenty of cover ” horizontal branches that let them hide, and that also provide low-hanging food for snowshoe hares.
Although lynx will eat squirrels and possibly other small mammals, they need the big hares to thrive and breed. On average, a lynx will eat a snowshoe hare every two to three days.
Her current work in the White River national forest lands of Summit County was partly spurred by a new regional Forest Service directive that requires the agency to maintain habitat connectivity. Simply put, that means ensuring that lynx can make their way across the landscape, finding adequate food and shelter along the way.
It’s not that the biologists are clueless. Studies from other regions give a fairly good idea of what those habitat requirements are. But Roberts is focused on “ground-truthing” some of those assumptions, and with a team of research technicians, she aims to study the White River National Forest, patch by patch.
Connecting lynx habitat in the southern Rockies presents a special challenge. In Alaska and Canada, the cats thrive in huge expanses of deep, dark forest. In Colorado, cover is harder to come by. Open slopes, rocky alpine zones and wide, treeless valleys carve the habitat into fragments. And the massive forest die-off caused by pine beetles is exacerbating the problem.
The Vail Pass area has long been deemed important for lynx dispersing northward from the San Juan release area. It’s one of the few places where the cats can pass underneath Interstate 70 rather than trying to cross it. Several lynx have been killed by cars on the interstate, which has often been described as a kind of Berlin Wall for wildlife.
“I’ve really enjoyed learning about it and trying to educate people about the importance of the landscape,” Roberts says, stopping to check her GPS unit. “This is not just a look at Summit County, it’s not just a look at Eagle County. We’re looking at the landscape as a whole, and trying to understand how that functions,” she says.
“This is always going to be a popular recreation area. That’s not going to change,” she says, referring to the Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area, shared by snowmobile riders, cross country skiers and snowshoe hikers. “We just have to find the balance. And Vail Pass is the heart of it.”
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